Connecticut’s landscape lacks drama — there’s no Sierra Nevadas, no Grand Tetons, no salmon-churned Columbia River.
But it’s sleek and green and lovely. It’s not wild. But it has its subtle charms.
And for such a small state, it has a complicated geology, with rock near the East Aspectuck River dating back about 1.4 billion years.
Volcanoes belched where Waterbury now stands. When ancient super continents collided, the floor of an ancient sea ended up as the marble outcroppings that line its western hills.
“People think living it a place with lots of space means it’s complicated,” said Robert Thorson, author and professor of geology at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. “They’re not. Connecticut is very complicated.”
“It’s had a remarkable history,” said Lawford Anderson, professor of geology at Boston University. “Part of New England is in Morocco.”
Anderson, who summers in Kent, spoke about tectonic plate collisions, Ice Age glaciers, earthquakes, volcanoes and global warming this month at the Gunn Library in Washington in a talk sponsored by the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust.
Anderson said the geology of a place explains why the place is what it is.
“I get up to a rock and I ask it three questions,” Anderson said. “They are: ‘What’s your name? How old are you? And where have you been?’”
Anderson said all the events that have led to the earth being the way it is stem from it being positioned at the right place in the solar system. Mars, father away from the sun, is too cold. Venus, closer to the sun, is too hot.
“We’re the perfect porridge for Goldilocks,” he said.
His talk strolled through the great collisions and separating of the supercontinents of the ancient earth; Kenorland, dating back 2.7 billion years ago; then in succession Columbia, Rondinia, and Pangea.
Tectonic plates inching across the earth’s surface over the millennia caused these huge land masses to smash into each other, then tear apart.
Western Connecticut used to be the western edge of the continent Laurentia, which eventually became Rondinia. When a second continent, Gondwanda, smashed into it to create Pangea, it formed the Appalachian Mountains.
Connecticut was dramatic then, with mountains as high as the Rockies. Over time, they eroded into what are now the placid Connecticut Highlands.
Pangea began to break up about 175 million years ago to create the modern continents.
The tearing created rift valleys in the state — places where the earth was torn, but not severed. The Connecticut and Hudson River valleys are rift valleys. So is the far more modest Pomperaug River Valley in Woodbury and Southbury.
Every so often over the past billion years, ice would cover the landmasses. The last great Ice Age, the Wisconsinan, reached Connecticut about 26,000 years ago, stayed for about 4,000 years, and then began to retreat.
In its wake, the melting glaciers left vast ponds in Connecticut and, most notably, what is now Long Island Sound.
John Pawlowski of New Milford, who is a longtime member of the Danbury Mineral Society and director of the Connecticut Museum of Mining and Mineral Science in Kent, said the ice melt created a glacial pond that stretched from Danbury up to Cornwall.
When the pond broke through its plugs, the flooding carved out Lover’s Leap gorge in New Milford and changed the direction of the Still River from south to north.
Glaciers also left kettles — spots where huge chucks of ice were buried by sediment. When the ice melted, they crumbled and filled in. Pawlowski said people have mined many of the area’s kettles for sand and gravel, although some may remain along the Pomperaug River.
But Thorson of UConn, whose book “Beyond Walden” explores the geology of the southern New England landscape, said if the hunk of ice was big enough, the kettle could connect with the ground water and create spring-fed kettle ponds.
Thoreau’s Walden Pond is the most famous of these, but Pawlowski said Simpaug Pond and Todd’s Pond near the Bethel-Redding line may be kettle ponds as well.
Glaciers also left behind drumlins — rounded, tear-shaped hills. They left behind the rocks that colonists heaped into stone walls. They left behind glacial erratics — huge boulders that sit in fields as if dropped from the sky.
All this, Thorson said, makes Connecticut look the way it is — valleys, hills, and ridgelines.
“It’s what can differentiate one town from another,” he said. “Every place is different.”